For the last decade, a job at Riana Paige, an undergraduate senior at the Wharton School of Business, had a high-paying internship at JPMorgan Chase last summer and was disappointed when she did not receive an offer for a full-time job after graduation. Now she is pursuing a job teaching in Dubai, or working for a wine importer.
Daniel Miller, a Wharton senior who interned last summer at a boutique private equity firm in Manhattan, became so discouraged by his search for jobs in finance that he began thinking about becoming a rabbi.
Jessica Levy, also a senior at Wharton, the nation’s most prestigious undergraduate business program, was stunned when her supervisor at UBS told her that although she had done a terrific job as an intern, the bank could not offer her a job after graduation. Her dreams of investment banking quashed, she recently took the Foreign Service exam and is vying for a job at the State Department.
“A lot of my peers, we’re exploring things that we used to not even think of as an option,” Ms. Levy said. “A finance major who was minoring in music was suddenly looking into opening a jazz club. All of a sudden, I saw that a lot of Wharton people were interesting.”
Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley or another investment bank has been considered the most coveted prize for many of the nation’s best and brightest college students. But the implosion of Wall Street — the vaporization of Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers , the general humbling of investment banks — has not only shaken a generation’s ambitions, but also unleashed them.
“There was a real herd mentality to get into investment banking,” said Ms. Levy, noting that prestige, peer pressure and parents often channeled students to Wall Street. But because of the crisis, “there was suddenly permission to pursue something you were interested in that your parents three years ago would have said absolutely no to.”
For many students at Wharton, part of the University of Pennsylvania, the Wall Street crisis has fostered a sense of relief. Some students now acknowledge that they were pursuing investment banking jobs largely to placate parents who, having invested nearly $200,000 in their children’s educations, were eager for them to earn top dollar — and some prestige too.
Of course, many students who coveted Wall Street jobs have landed them: the prestige firms that remain are doing plenty of hiring, although substantially less than in years past. And some finance majors shut out of Wall Street jobs have accepted back-up options, often lesser banks in smaller cities. But many who thirsted for big investment banking bonuses are looking at decidedly down-market alternatives, everything from Teach for America to computer engineering.
“It’s always been about the brass ring and it’s always been about the brand recognition, and for a lot of students that meant jobs at Goldman Sachs,” said Emanuel Sturman, director of career services at Dartmouth College . “It’s premature to say the bloom is off the rose totally, but I think students are starting to look at a wider array of brass rings.”
College officials say that the sweeping changes on Wall Street will affect not only finance-minded members of the class of ’09 but also tens of thousands of juniors, sophomores and freshmen, as well as future students, leading them to rethink their majors and their career goals.
After doing an internship at Goldman Sachs last summer and not being offered a full-time job there, Katie Shea, a senior at the Stern School of Business at New York University, is instead pursuing her dreams of entrepreneurship. She has founded a shoe company that designs and imports collapsible shoes that women can wear while walking to work and then stuff into their pocketbooks.
“For me, the Wall Street crisis was a blessing in disguise,” said Ms. Shea.
Not everyone feels that way. For many undergraduates with their eyes on Wall Street, the financial sector crisis created panic — and confusion in their job searches. Ms. Levy says she interviewed at Lehman Brothers one day, and it filed for bankruptcy the next day.
“Over the past three years, you saw 10 to 12 kids from Wharton going to each of the top five banks,” said Jeremy Cohn, a Wharton senior. “This year there are probably zero to 2 or 3 students going to each of those banks.”
Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and other banks declined to discuss how much they have reduced job offers. But college officials estimate the decline in financial sector job offers is 10 to 50 percent. And it is also affecting M.B.A. students.
Jana Kierstead, director of M.B.A. career services at Harvard Business School, said the number of job postings over all had declined 30 percent from last year, with a 40 percent drop among financial institutions.
“The number of firms coming to campus was relatively the same, but the number of positions they’re recruiting for has been reduced,” she said.
Ms. Kierstead said 78 percent of Harvard’s second-year M.B.A. students had job offers, down from 90 percent at this time last year.
At Wharton, the number of on-campus interviews for the school’s 600 undergraduates fell 20 percent, from 13,000 last year.
Last year, starting salaries for undergraduates going to top financial firms typically ran from $55,000 to $70,000, with an $8,000 signing bonus. And their annual bonus often equaled their starting salary. This year, starting salaries are roughly the same, with signing bonuses often falling to $4,000. As for expectations of fat bonuses, they have gone the way of Bear Stearns.
Some students have grown frustrated and suspended their job search. As a result, Patricia Rose, the University of Pennsylvania’s director of career services, recently sent out a message saying: “We are hearing from some students that they are discouraged, and have stopped applying for jobs because so many other candidates are competing with them, some undoubtedly more qualified. Resist this impulse! By not applying, you are rejecting yourself.”
She reminded them, “You are attending one of the world’s finest universities.”
“So hang in there,” she concluded. “And most importantly, believe in yourself.”
While some Wharton seniors are struggling, many have done well. Jeremy Cohn, for example, has been hired by Lazard Freres’ real estate group. Mickey Washmore, a former Goldman Sachs intern, has accepted an offer with Microsoft's finance division. Anthony Orlando and Nanxi Ling will work for Oliver Wyman, a Manhattan consulting firm that advises floundering banks.
But Oliver Wyman has asked them to push back their start date to January.
“We’re all young; we’ll all get a job,” Mr. Washmore said. “This isn’t going to last forever.”
A job offer can, of course, make all the difference.
Daniel Miller, the student who was contemplating rabbinical school, had suspended his job search, intent on savoring his last few weeks before graduation.
“I have the next 60 years of my life to worry about work,” he said. “I’m fortunate I don’t have any college debt and have a very supportive family. I can’t imagine what it’s like for someone less fortunate than me.”
But last Thursday, a real estate investment firm outside Philadelphia offered him a job. Rabbinical school can wait.